Social justice activists at a New York high school successfully shut down a production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” after a white student landed a lead role.
Protests of the production began when an African-American student quit Ithaca High School’s musical production due to the role of Esmeralda being given to a white classmate.
“It shows you that theater wasn’t made for you,” the student told the Ithaca Journal. “And it shows you that, if you can’t get the parts that are written for you, what parts are you going to get?”
Student activists then banded together under the umbrella of Students United Ithaca and wrote a letter that included a list of demands, saying that, while the young lady cast as Esmeralda was “a stellar actor, singer, and dancer” any production would be “lucky to have,” she couldn’t be cast in this role because she is the “epitome of whiteness.”
“At best, this is cultural appropriation,” the student group wrote, alleging racial bias within the Performing Arts Program at IHS, and “at worst, it is whitewashing, a racist casting practice which has its roots in minstrelsy.”
While the student activists demanded “brown and black female students” be considered for the role, the character in question is half Roma, half French, according to the novel by Victor Hugo. SUI stressed “the book and the musical should not be conflated” because the musical is only “inspired” by Hugo’s manuscript.
The group points out that the Musical Theater International production guide lists her role as a “Romani woman” who is “an outcast racially and culturally.”
The Ithaca City School District announced it canceled the musical in an attempt to be “more inclusive and culturally responsive” in their “efforts to eliminate institutional biases.”
The high school is planning on putting on “another collaborative project” instead, adding that “this is not about any particular faculty member or ICSD employee.”
“We thank everyone for their contributions as we delve further into complex conversations,” the district said. “In addition, we ask that you please stay engaged as we continually work to create community-wide support for our students and school community.”
“Stop the racist and openly stated policy of ‘color blind’ casting in the ICSD,” the group wrote, adding “because of institutionalized racism this results in white children being cast in roles written as white parts and also white children being cast in roles that were specifically intended for people of color.”
“Our endgame,” the group said, is a performing arts program with more unity, more inclusion, and musical where we can all experience the joy and bonding of inclusive performing arts following best theatrical practices.”
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